The next interface

Generative AI has triggered the great interface shift, changing the way we interact with digital systems. The implications for brands are huge.

The evolution of the internet is, to a large degree, driven by the evolution of its interfaces. The first milestone was the web itself, which gave the text-based nerdy network of the eighties a slick, consumer-friendly interface. Since then, the perpetual question of what’s next has been, in part at least, a question of the next interface.

No wonder generative AI, the latest hot tech on the block, comes with a lot of interface fuss. On the surface, it looks like chatbots reloaded. Bots used to be hot in the middle of the last decade. But neither voice interfaces nor text-based chatbots have really caught on. Here’s Ben Evans explaining why:

Alexa and its imitators mostly failed to become much more than voice-activated speakers, clocks and light-switches, and the obvious reason they failed was that they only had half of the problem. The new machine learning meant that speech recognition and natural language processing were good enough to build a completely generalised and open input, but though you could ask anything, they could only actually answer 10 or 20 or 50 things, and each of those had to be built one by one, by hand, by someone at Amazon, Apple or Google.

It was a bit like Yahoo in the mid-nineties (a handmade catalogue of websites). But then, in 2022, large language models (LLMs) and ChatGPT happened, and suddenly we had both input and output. In theory at least. Chatbots have passed the Turing test. The only problem is that you can’t trust them all the time – just like many, if not most, human beings. We need to be a bit sceptical about what they tell us, but we now have a conversational web, if we want to call it that.

This year’s Life Trends report by our mothership Accenture spells out the changes this brings to customers and brands. The key point is about a better mutual understanding:

Generative AI is upgrading the internet from informative to intelligent, and the experience of using it from transactional to personal. Benefits are on both sides of a key relationship: customers will be more deeply understood than ever, while brands will use that understanding to shape hyper-relevant products, services and experiences.

It’s not the first time that the change brought by a new interface goes deeper than the mere surface. Interfaces are two-way streets: they make a software product accessible to the user, and vice versa. They’re about mutual understanding. Frequently, we don’t understand a product, and the product doesn’t understand us. Interfaces exist to solve this.

A first step

Make no mistake: chat interfaces, or the command-line prompts we use for tools like Midjourney, are only a first step. They offer a first glimpse into what’s possible. In the words of the Life Trends report:

Specifically, large language models (LLMs) are powering a radically new interface through which people access information, and prompting a significant shift in how people relate to the world around them. It promises to make people feel understood digitally, and therefore have more relevant experiences.

The rise of the web, and then mobile, wasn’t so much about the slick interface per se, but about the user-centric and customer-centric thinking behind it. That laid the groundwork for a shift of focus away from technology and towards people. And then, customer experience and relevance became the pillars of success.

LLMs are driving this shift even further, partly because they are powerful models of human language. Understanding human language has always been the holy grail of computing; simply talking to a computer as we would talk to other human beings. LLMs are putting us a significant step closer to this goal.

Through conversational interfaces, people will be able to steer machines in new ways and machines will be able to interpret people in finer detail, unlocking new behaviors, attitudes, and expectations for their digital interactions—and brands will be caught in the middle.

Ultimately, it’s the shift of behaviours and expectations that matters most. Here’s where we’ll feel the impact on brands that are not directly affected by the new technology. The predominant mode of interaction on the web used to be search: people need something, and so they search for it. But what about discovery? How can we discover new things, ideas, or insights?

A universal interface

The great promise of social media was discovery through other people. Our real or virtual friends would bring us news and fresh ideas, or alert us to new products. Given the reality of social media today, this pledge looks laughable. Can generative AI deliver on that promise? It all depends on the depth and breadth of conversations we’ll have.

As human beings, we often start conversations when we don’t yet know what we need or want. We talk to other people to find out. Good salespersons are examples of this, as are coaches. Will we talk to computers in a similar fashion? The potential for it is there, and the first use cases already exist. Soon enough, people will expect more from their digital interactions.

The best UI, though, is no UI at all, or rather, just one UI, by which I mean “Universal Interface”.

Is ChatGPT, or rather OpenAI, on its way to creating what Ben Thompson calls a Universal Interface? Obviously, the future remains to be seen, but the current trajectory of generative AI points to exactly that. Ben Thompson therefore describes ChatGPT as “the most important consumer-facing product since the iPhone”, which is no mean feat.

If you want to go further down that rabbit hole, read Ben Thompson’s coverage of the recent OpenAI keynote. But if you want to better understand the implications the great interface shift has for brands, head to the Life Trends report.

As of today, the next interface isn’t about hardware, but this could change pretty soon. Look no further than Humane’s AI wearable. And let’s not forget the Apple Vision Pro, which is a hardware product, but an Apple-style integrated system of hardware, software, and services. I’m sure there are some people in Cupertino thinking about and working on the next interface and the role of generative AI.

This article is one of five linked pieces exploring the ideas in the 2024 Life Trends report: